The Big Apple Circus, which was forced to take down its tents ahead of bankruptcy proceedings in 2016, now faces a big lawsuit over the firing of one of the partners involved in turning the then-failing circus operation around.
According to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Larry Solheim and his wife Rita were critical parts of the winning proposal approved by the circus’ board to take over the management and production coming out of bankruptcy.
According to the Solheims, it was their credibility that put the proposal over the line—and that the private equity firm and others involved reneged on their obligations to give both prominent positions in the new venture, which included handing operations over to Larry Solheim.
Solheim’s complaint said he was the last hope for the failing operation when he took over as vice president and general manager in 2015. At that point, the circus’ prospects had been falling for years. Even so, Solheim said his management changes came close to saving the big top from going down, but the inability to raise $2 million in 2016 made a Chapter 11 filing that year unavoidable.
Solheim, who claimed decades of experience as a manager of a well-known performing operation, and as a consultant to some of the biggest and best-known performing troupes in the world, soon began conversations aimed at taking over the Big Apple’s operations. Through introductions from associates, he was introduced to and joined up with the defendants, including a Florida-based venture firm called Compass Partners that had no prior investment experience in the circus world, according to the complaint.
After putting together the plan to present to Big Apple’s board of directors, Solheim claimed it was his connections and experience that put the group’s bid to take over the circus. He goes on to claim the board was leery of Compass Partners, and that it was sensitive to the need to continue to keep the circus’ community service commitment in place. Solheim’s involvement was the reason, “in large part,” the board ultimately went with the group’s proposal, the complaint stated.
Yet as work got underway for a new launch in 2017, the Solheims claim the promises made to the couple—that Larry would run the circus operations and be duly compensated, while Rita would retain a high-ranking administrative position—were continually undermined by their partners. Outside hires, with no experience in the industry, were inserted in between the Solheims and the other partners, putting them continually at arms-length.
One of the outside hires, Michael Couper, became CEO. Couper was a named defendant in the case. The complaint alleged Couper was brusque and unprofessional, including a recounted meeting in which he directed an off-color comment at Rita, while allegedly failing to responsibly manage the circus operations. Things reached a head on July 6, 2017, when Couper reportedly fired both Solheims without warning, or discussion of any performance problems.
According to the Solheims, the present owners of the circus rescinded a separation packaged to the pair over specious defamation claims about a tweet sent by Rita, while also obstructing their ability to collect unemployment benefits.
The pair are suing for breach of contract and fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, and numerous other claims.
Kaplan Law Office partner Charlie Caranicas represents the Solheims. He did not respond to a request for comment.
The Big Apple Circus did not respond to a request for comment either.